1.GM and the less than impartial BBC
2.Responses to GM and the less than impartial BBC
3.More on the problems with some BBC coverage
1.GM and the less than impartial BBC
Campaign for Real Farming, May 3 2012
On the Today programme this AM (May 3 2012) BBC Radio 4 returned once more to GM crops — with former Oxford zoologist and pro high-tech Lord Krebs head-to-head with former Edinburgh ecologist Pete Riley of GM Freeze. As is the way in these things, interviewer Evan Davis gave John Krebs carte blanche to say his piece while interrupting Pete Riley at every turn – but we’ll let that pass. What matters is the arguments.
John Krebs's arguments, unremarked by Davis, shifted as the discussion progressed. Krebs said early in the piece that wheat would not cross-contaminate with other crops unless the two were "cheek-by-jowl". Wheat is mostly self-pollinating so cross-pollination is in any case "rare" – and wind-blown wheat pollen doesn’t travel far. Riley then pointed out that wheat does of course cross-pollinate to a measurable extent (and since nature deals in extraordinarily large numbers, relatively "rare" events are in practice extremely frequent) and that wheat pollen has been shown to travel more than two kilometres, which in Britain's crowded isle is a long way. Well of course, Lord Krebs conceded, cross-pollination does occur – but, he declared, it doesn't matter. This happens all the time with ordinary crops and wild species. But he preferred not to call this "contamination" (as Riley did) because "contamination is a loaded word".
So Lord Krebs told us that cross contamination cannot occur unless GM and conventional wheat are grown in adjacent fields – or at least it can but it doesn't matter. Evan Davis was happy with this.
Lord Krebs then told us that what really matters is human health (as opposed to ecology or economics or politics or the lives of farmers or any of the other things that most people think are important) and that the most thorough investigations possible by independent scientists had failed to show any ill-effects. Hundreds of millions of people have been eating GM crops for years, he said, and it's impossible to ascribe any particular disorder to them.
This again went unremarked, although philosophically and biologically speaking this is among the slipperiest and most suspect arguments that could be put. Given that people eat so many different things, and nutrition in detail is immeasurably complex ("nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution"), and that people are subject day-to-day to a million other stresses, and that there are so many different conceivable indices of health, we can be fairly sure that no effect that did not result in people falling over, or turning blue, or their teeth falling out with a clatter, would be measurable. Subtle setbacks (mood, overall longevity, susceptibility to infection, and so on, and so on) are almost bound to be missed. For this kind of reason it took until the 1960s to demonstrate that copper is an essential nutrient and it wasn't until the late 1970s that folic acid deficiency was convincingly linked to spina bifida (though by no means definitively). The point is not that scientists are incompetent, but that nature is extremely hard to pin down.
So it is good to know that no-one eating the GM crops that are on the market have so far collapsed in a heap for reasons that can be linked directly to GM. But the fact that they haven't by no means demonstrates that the crops are "safe". As a very accomplished scientist (his research at Oxford was outstanding) Lord Krebs knows this full well. (No-one mentioned, either, that when defenders of traditional medicine point out that some community or other has been using such-and-such a REMEDY for centuries without apparent ill-effects, this argument is dismissed as "unscientific". Yet scientific defenders of the food industry use the same argument routinely).
In any case, said Davis to Pete Riley, it's not up to the biotech industry to prove that its crops are safe. It's up to GM Freeze and other objectors to prove that THEY are dangerous. And you can't. So there.
But this is a strange reversal indeed. In the absence of people falling down clutching their throats (preferably croaking "It was … it was … G–" just before they conk out) dangerousness is very hard to prove indeed. In the 1970s I wrote about the putative dangers of saturated fats and although the issues in that case seem very obvious and many of the studies really were as large and thorough and well thought-out as it is possible to be, the issue is still not clear.
In short: Lord Krebs cannot in practice demonstrate the safety of GM and neither can anyone else, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise; and Pete Riley and GM freeze cannot demonstrate that GM crops are dangerous to human health. The real issue, then, is not who is right, but where the burden of proof is deemed to lie. In the mind of interviewer Davis, it lies with the objectors. Until a statistically valid sample of people fall to the ground clutching their throats, we are to take the market-led Establishment's word for it that all is well.
Here we come to the nub. For it used to be the leading principle of the old FDA (the Food and Drug Administration of the United States), and perhaps it still is, that no company was allowed to market a new drug unless they first showed (a) that the drug was as safe as it could conceivably be (which in practice means that the cure should be shown to be significantly less horrible than the disease); and (b) that the novel drug was better than anything that was already on the market.
This is eminently reasonable – in line with the backwards principle that "If it ain't bust, don't fix it", or "Leave well alone".
In line with this principle, and recognizing as we must that perfect safety cannot be demonstrated, GM companies ought to be required to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt (a) that their novel crops are truly necessary and (b) that they truly improve not only on what exists already but on what could exist if only we put our research efforts, and tax-payers money, behind alternative ways of proceeding (including, for example, genetically heterogenous crops in mixed plantings).
But I want to argue all this more thoroughly in a future article: a reply to a recent open letter by John Pickett of Rothamsted Research, in defence of Rothamsted’s new aphid-repellent GM wheat. Professor Pickett’s letter makes the pro case very well and many will find it convincing. It isn’t – but it needs a properly framed answer (as opposed to this quick response).
Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, May 3 2012
2.Responses to GM and the less than impartial BBC
Campaign for Real Farming, 10 May 2012
Colin sent his piece to Lord John Krebs, Pete Riley and Evan Davis.
Here's Pete's response:
Thanks you for you note commenting on the piece on GM crops the Today Programme involving Lord Krebs and me. These short exchanges can never truly explore the complexities of what crops we should grow, how and where and to what end. This debate encompasses science, socio-economics and ethics so dealing with it in a 50 second sound bites on the Today Programme is impossible.
There appears to be a growing consensus that "business as usual" in agriculture and food production is not an option but there's little attempt by the media to examine exactly what we want our agriculture and food producers to do instead. Whether or not GM crops play a part in future agriculture will ultimately depend on the form of agriculture/land management adopted and whether GM crops are proven to be safe and reliable.
From my perspective safety and reliability are far from proven.
At present GM varieties are being developed to serve a discredited form of farming – monoculture. Huge fields of wheat, the size that used to support a profitable family farm in the past, containing just one variety which is turned dark green by the application of artificial fertilisers in the spring. Aphids and diseases have field day on these sugar rich crops and need to be controlled by chemicals and GM. Rotations are very limited - made worse by the fact that wheat and oilseed rape are the only crops considered profitable at present. Increasingly these crops are being diverted from food and feed into bio-fuels to meet ludicrous targets dreamt up by politicians to alleviate climate change.
The majority of arable fields are pretty much devoid of any suitable habitats for predators and parasites that could keep aphid populations in check and prevent yield losses. This lack of natural vegetation is also reflected in the low numbers of other insects, birds and mammals present.
And yet Rothamsted Research have been granted over GBP1 million of public money to develop a GM crop to repel aphids to shore up a system of farming which will not deliver what is required – deep organic rich soils, diverse crops and genetics, long rotations including nitrogen fixing crops, hedges and habits to maintain high populations of beneficial insects, the integration of livestock into the system and the recycling of as much organic matter as possible from many different sources.
This would require big changes in how we farm backed by integrated research looking at the most efficient systems and a training programme to ensure that farmers apply the knowledge gained through that research as quickly as possible.
And yet we spend our time debating whether the blind alley of GM crops are safe to eat or not.
The truth is that is difficult to say given that our regulatory systems makes too many assumptions and fails to systematically look for the unpredictable outcomes of genetic engineering. In the US people eat highly processed GM crops in the main, such as maize syrup, oil, lecithin and modified starch, where no GM proteins are likely to be present. The lack of labelling means that meaningful epidemiological work to monitor changes in public health since 1996 would be futile given that it would be impossible to say who had eaten what and when. It can hardly be said that the US population is the healthiest on the planet. Examining US pig health might be more productive.
The people of the Global South are far more likely to consume whole GM crops, such as maize, if and when they accept it or are forced to accept it, so would be exposed to GM proteins in large amounts. Food safety would be a high priority given the dominance of certain foods in their diets.
The global food crisis has been seized upon as a means to rehabilitate GM crops which have not proved to be sustainable in the Americas. The dominance of glyphosate tolerant crops in the maize, soya and cotton belts has led to weeds evolving resistance to the weed killer. The biotech companies' solution has been more and different weed killers in cocktails or in rotation and more genetic modification. Thus we can expect more residues in food, soil and water – in other words "business as usual".
Instead of a re-assessment of the course farming is on, we are offered "sustainable intensification" in which GM is seen as the tool to increase yields and efficiency from soils that have been hammered into the ground for 60 years. No one in authority has painted a picture of how exactly this piece of magic will be achieved.
The alternative is to re-focus our attention on the soil so it can be restored to a state to produce the many riches it is capable of – growing healthy crops and trees, absorbing and retaining rainfall, building organic carbon and storing it and cycling it, and supporting rich and diverse ecosystems and agroecosystems above and below the ground. This could be achieved relatively quickly especially if plant breeders support it by breeding new varieties better adapted to lower input systems and different means of maintain soil fertility.
The key to the future well being of the people and creatures on the planet lies in diversity rather than sterile GM monocultures which provide perfect breeding grounds for pests and diseases. To achieve this we need farmers, scientists and politicians with vision – where are they?
3.More on the problems with some BBC coverage of GM
New GM industry push in the UK
Mr Frankenfood and the GM breakthroughs that never were
Jimmy's GM Food Fix
Sir Peter's GM food fight?